If you look at a map of Southern California, the Salton Sea sits near the middle, a strange enigma. At 376 square miles, it’s one of the largest bodies of water in the continental United States, but few people have ever heard of it. It’s utterly foreign even to most Angelinos, despite being just 150 miles away from LA.
Visiting the place does little to dispel its mystery either; a drive around the coast of the Salton Sea is a tour of a seemingly post-apocalyptic terrain, a curious mixture of semi-abandoned shacks and trailers marked with graffiti along with real estate developments evidently planned but never realized within a blasted landscape that’s akin to Death Valley. Street signs arbitrarily denote intersections in the dust that don’t seem to exist, and utility poles jut out of the anomalous, incongruous sea, suggesting some forgotten Californian Atlantis in the desert.
When the sea has managed to make the news in recent years, it’s usually because of the yearly die-offs: the thousands and thousands of fish that die each year from eutrophication, strangulated by the agricultural runoff that flows in and the algal blooms that deplete the sea’s oxygen. If the journey is timed right, an intrepid Salton Sea tourist can enjoy the fetid stench of algae and see beaches that appear to consist entirely of fish bones rather than sand. If it’s not the dead fish, it’s the dead birds. The region is uniquely suitable for the incubation of avian botulism, which had run rampant there, killing thousands of birds, until a special commission was set up to round up pelican carcasses and prevent the disease from spiraling out of control.
But it wasn’t always like this, as Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s thoroughly engrossing documentary, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea reveals, mostly through a voiceover supplied, oddly, by filmmaker John Waters. (Presumably, the idea is that there is something kitschy and trashy about the Salton Sea; to a certain degree that is how the documentary is marketed. It also features instrumental music from Friends of Dean Martinez, a Tucson band that specializes in atmospheric instrumentals.) Before 1905, the Salton Sea was the Salton Sink, a dry desert basin below sea level. But after the Colorado River overran dubiously engineered irrigation channels set up in the Imperial Valley, the basin became a shallow sea, a bathtub without a drain. It was at first expected that the water would simply evaporate, but because it was saturated with fertilizer runoff, it was too salinized to dry up.
The sea survived for a few decades as a testament to the disaster that washed away the livelihood of many of the valley’s farmers, but as that tragedy was forgotten, the catastrophe began to be reconceived by the 1950s as kind of happy accident, a recreational paradise, a Panglossian miracle that derived ultimately from mankind’s inability to do wrong when it came to tampering in God’s domain. The warm, nutrient rich saltwater proved initially to be a ideal breeding ground for fish, and once it was stocked with tilapia, the sea gave forth an unbelievable bounty, making it a place where even the most hapless fisherman could bring in a enviable catch. Fishing piers and marinas proliferated, and along with RV parks, gas stations, restaurants, and tackle shops.
Also, because the water was calm and buoyant, the Salton Sea was an ideal place for waterskiing, motor boating and Jet-skiing. By the 1960s, as California’s population boomed in the midst of the uninterrupted stretch of postwar prosperity, it seemed inevitable that the Salton Sea region would become a mecca for vacationers, with new infrastructure and up-to-the-minute services for all the very newest innovations in leisure. Photographs that the filmmakers pan and scan over show a populuxe paradise of googie diners, yacht clubs, tail-finned autos and motel swimming pools, but the best document of this boundlessly optimistic spirit is a short promo film from the period (included in its entirety on the DVD) pitching Salton City real estate. Salton City is conceived as the inevitable heir to Palm Springs, a place where a land investment could not possibly go wrong.
Of course, it went very wrong. Because there is no outflow for the sea, it’s subject to rapid fluctuations in volume, and a series of storms, combined with unexpected influx of irrigation runoff , created massive floods that washed away much of the budding resorts by the 1970s. And as if to teach a lesson about human hubris, what had seemed like an oasis rapidly reverted to something of an ecological abomination. The salinity of the sea eventually reached levels that kicked off the cycle of massive fish die-offs, and the bird refuges, because of the temperature and the superfluity of dead fish, became breeding grounds for avian disease. One of the documentary’s most poignant passages chronicles the career of one of the current park officials, who has the Sisyphean task of gathering bird carcasses in order to deter botulism outbreaks, driving through the wastes in a pickup truck, dragging the birds across the brush and loading them in a heap on the flat bed.
Now the sea’s future is threatened by Southern California water politics, which threaten to divert the inflows that replenish it, assuring that it will ultimately revert to an alkaline desert. Outsiders have little sympathy for the sea’s disappearance, particularly since even environmentalists regard it as a man-made disaster area. As the documentary details, though the loss of the sea would deprive migrating birds in the region one of their last havens, thereby endangering their future, and it could unleash dust storms that would obliterate the rapidly growing communities upwind; Coachella, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Cathedral City, even Palm Springs.
While the film touches on these issues and the various efforts to protect the sea (originally spearheaded by Sonny Bono in the 1990s), its main focus is soaking up local color from the residents who have chosen to tough it out in the inhospitable environment. Most of these are retirees, attracted by the dry climate and the cheap land, but some are dreamers clinging to the fantasies of the sea becoming the “California Riviera”. Others are eccentrics or outsiders who seem to thrive away from the friction of modern society.
Among these are a nudist, a folk artist who has built a holy mountain out of old truck tires, adobe, and latex paint, and a Hungarian émigré named Hunky Daddy, who seems straight out of a David Lynch film, though he speaks a broken English, he gets his own subtitles, like the Little Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks. Also featured are a winning group of kids who talk about their boredom in a literally dead town. One eight-year-old shares how she and her friends refuse to sell weed to outsiders, and a teenage mother relates how she feels safe in Bombay Beach (on the sea’s eastern shore) because in a city her son would be probably be killed “in less than 48 hours”.
It would have been easy to exploit such interview subjects and set them up to seem even stranger than they already seem. Such an approach would have reinforced what would be perhaps the more comfortable idea about the Salton Sea area, that it is a kind of asylum fit only for lunatics and freaks, with unrecognizable and unsympathetic goals. But instead, the documentary leaves the opposite impression; the hardy people who have clung to the sea through its travails, in spite of its stench and its reputed toxicity, seem fixed on some quintessential American ideal of freedom, earned by ignoring or evading the constraints and impositions most eventually make their peace with.
These people aren’t exactly pioneers, but they seem to be on one of the last American frontiers, where native optimism can still stubbornly face down an inhospitable climate, environmental wreckage, and state neglect to make for an unencumbered life that seems wholly one’s own. To its credit, the film captures this without flinching from showing the cost at which it comes.